Hello my friends! As you see, we have Jeannie Lin back in in the house! She’s got an awesome post with us today. (And keep your eyes peeled; I hope to flood this place with posts, after my internet is sorted out. But anyway! I hope you find this post as interesting as I did!
It’s widely accepted that the era when most of my stories take place, the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), was a remarkable period of freedom for Chinese women. Women of the past were just as multi-faceted, complicated, rebellious and liberated as women of today, a fact that many people tend to overlook since the depiction of women is often limited to wives, concubines and courtesans. But not so in the Tang Dynasty where the artwork shows women playing polo, entertaining scholars and politicians, even ruling the empire.
The various roles that women played in Tang society is something I explore in both The Sword Dancer, my upcoming June release, as well as The Lotus Palace, coming in September.
Not only did the poem start me thinking about the practice of sword dancing, but I was moved by the fact that the poet recognized that Madam Gongsun was not only beautiful, but very skilled. The dancer in the poem isn’t Gongsun, but a student that she’s trained. So Gongsun isn’t merely a famous and talented performer, but a teacher here.
Li Feng, the heroine of The Sword Dancer, opens the story as a swordswoman and a rebel. She takes up dancing as her profession as she travels through the province to search for answers about her past.
The icon of the warrior woman is a common on in Chinese history. In fact, one such woman warrior was instrumental in founding the Tang Dynasty. When Li Yuan was working to overthrow the Sui Dynasty, his dear daughter Zhao, aka Princess Pinyang, managed to convince several rebel leaders to join her, raised an army of over 70,000 men and basically kicked ass. There would be no Tang Dynasty without her. When she died, her father honored with a military funeral, the same as he would his highest generals.
But as Li Feng evades the hero, the infamous Thief-catcher Han, I noticed a pattern emerging. With each disguise, she takes on another role that allowed women a measure of autonomy during this time.
At one point, she masquerades as a courtesan. The Tang Dynasty saw the rise of the elite courtesan, the yiji, who were literate and trained in music and poetry; fit to be companions to the most powerful men in the empire. More interesting than that, was that courtesans occasionally earned enough to buy their own freedom. Once retired, former courtesans became owners and proprietors of pleasure houses and wine shops. So they were not just entertainers, but also businesswomen.
In another disguise, Li Feng wears the robes of a Taoist priestess in order to travel freely. Taoist priestesses operated outside of the norms of behavior for women and as a social class enjoyed even more freedom than courtesans. Unlike courtesans, they were no one’s property and unlike Buddhist nuns, they were not celibate. Many Tang princesses opted to become Taoist priestesses rather than marry and two famous female poets of the Tang Dynasty, Li Ye and Yu Xuanji, were Taoist priestesses.
So as Li Feng climbs over walls and runs over rooftops, celebrating the metaphor of physical freedom, I also wanted to make her journey an homage to all the fascinating and independent women of the Tang Dynasty.
Who’s your favorite independent woman in history? What about the ones who are not princesses or queens or empresses, yet still made a name for themselves?
Hi everyone! Today we have Jeannie Lin guesting with us! She’s got a pretty awesome post, so there’s nothing more I really need to say. Enjoy!
Tang Dynasty Courtesans – High Class Prostitutes?
Since I won this opportunity to guest after a #stalkersong contest, I thought it might be fun to tie the blog in with that theme, but alas—stalker romance, not so sexy!
So instead I tried to think of an 80s song title that would be appropriate. I had already titled one of the blogs “She’s Got the Look” about Tang Dynasty clothing, but “Turning Japanese” hardly fit since we’re in China. Maybe David Bowie’s “China Girl”? Anyway, I digress.
Big ol’ thanks to Limecello for hosting cool contests that let me reminisce about my 80’s addiction as well as giving me a place to post geeky posts about courtesans.
The heroine of The Dragon and the Pearl is a courtesan named Suyin who was selected into the imperial harem as one of the Emperor’s concubines. But what did it mean to be a courtesan in Tang Dynasty China? How could a woman who entertained other men be allowed into the Emperor’s harem? Was Suyin essentially a high-class prostitute?
I think the last question is the juicy one that makes us want to know more about this lifestyle. Courtesans have played an important role in very high powered positions throughout history in both Western and Eastern cultures. In both cases, it’s recognized that their influence and allure extended beyond sex. Courtesans were often highly educated and able to carry on sophisticated conversations with men of power. They were companions and mistresses, not merely sex providers.
Yet there are slight nuances in Chinese culture that put the courtesan in a very fascinating position. In many ways, the Tang Dynasty courtesan held a unique place among the elite of society and she was both more independent and at the same time more beholden than her Western counterparts.
First of all, there were common prostitutes and whores in the Tang Dynasty. There were women who serviced the army or worked in brothels where the primary commodity was sex. Not much was written about their lives so it is unclear whether they were condemned or considered base and immoral. Much of the writing of the Tang Dynasty focused on the elite classes, but it can be assumed in terms of the status of women, prostitutes likely occupied the lowest rung among slaves and servants.
The courtesans were something entirely different. It was a registered profession and there are records of daughters of high-ranking nobleman registering to become courtesans. Similar to geisha in Japan, Tang Dynasty courtesans usually resided in specific entertainment districts and belonged to specific houses which were headed by den mothers or madams, for lack of a better word. These houses were much more than common brothels. Courtesans were often trained from an early age in music, dance, and poetry in these establishments. In return for the room, board, and upbringing, the courtesans would incur an immense amount of debt to their den mothers so the relationship became akin to slavery or common prostitution in the sense that they were expected to earn money for their entertainment houses to pay off this debt and the amount they owed would often ensure that they were bonded for life. On the other hand, courtesans had the right to petition the public courts if they were treated unfairly and could pay off their debt and be free to leave without repercussions.
Courtesans played an essential and often honored roll among high-powered Tang Dynasty society. Courtesans were considered artists. Based on writings and poems about elite courtesans, it seemed that there was more emphasis on their talent and skill as musicians, dancers, and poets than on their physical beauty. Courtesans also played an important role as hostesses and mediators for important meetings between noblemen, officials, and businessmen. Their connections with these influential men as well as with scholars and poets gave them an elevated status in Tang society.
But before the picture gets too rosy—we shouldn’t forget that they were still servants. Courtesans negotiated a very complicated landscape where they had influence outside of domestic circles; an uncommon place for women. They were praised and looked upon with admiration, yet they were still dependent on patrons for their livelihood.
Let’s talk about sex then, the ever lingering question. Were courtesans masters in the sensual and sexual arts? It’s already been mentioned that their sexual role was secondary to their social function. At the same time, they had more sexual freedom and were they to take a lover, the purpose would be definitely be for pleasure rather than duty or procreation, which would certainly add a different spice to things. A courtesan was probably more knowledgeable and experienced than a blushing bride whose first and only experience was with her husband, however it was unlikely that she had numerous bed partners in her career.
A courtesan was a master of courtship rather than sex. It was common and even expected for an elite courtesan to be pursued and courted by many men, but it would be disastrous to her reputation if she were to take more than a few select patrons to bed. A high-ranking courtesan could choose her own lovers where a less privileged one would likely have her lovers chosen for her by her den mother. As for the enamored scholars and noblemen who vied for a courtesan’s attention, there was no shame or dishonor in being held off. Essentially, they were paying for the companionship and the chase, not the conquest. It would be unthinkable for a man to attend a social gathering and immediately expect sex from his hostess.
There were likely two times when an elite courtesan would truly “sell herself”. If she’d entered the life from a very young age, the first time she took a lover would garner a significant payment though there were no records of the elaborate mizuage “virginity auctions” depicted in geisha culture. If she remained in the profession, she was likely hoping to attract a single wealthy and powerful patron to buy out her debt.
Unlike in Western culture, being a professional courtesan didn’t carry a taint of impurity with it. A courtesan could marry without repercussions after she left the profession. This was likely due to the fact that a woman’s status was defined by her husband rather than by her own merit—before we go assuming that the Tang Dynasty was a wholly progressive and liberated time for women. Also the prevailing religions at the time, Buddhism and Taoism, didn’t place any special value upon virginity, so there was no sense of sin around a courtesan who had taken lovers before she was married. At the same time, a woman who was not a courtesan was certainly not free to take on lovers before marrying and most brides were expected to be untouched on their wedding nights.
In the backstory of The Dragon and the Pearl, Ling Suyin is trained in one of these pleasure houses and groomed to be an elite courtesan. In a great triumph, she manages to attract the eye of imperial official who is selecting for the Emperor’s harem. She rises in rank and influence, and becomes his primary or “precious consort”, but upon his death she leaves the court to live in exile.
And that’s when her story really begins.
Comment to win a copy of The Dragon and the Pearl (print or ebook, your choice) and get a glimpse into the world of the Tang Dynasty.
The Dragon and the Pearl is available September 20 from Harlequin Historical and is set in the Tang Dynasty, during a time of court intrigue and a great power struggle between opposing warlords. It’s a follow-up to my 2010 release, Butterfly Swords. A linked short story, The Lady’s Scandalous Night, is available as an ebook release now from Harlequin Historical Undone.
You can visit me at my website: http://www.jeannielin.com or check out The Dragon and the Pearl Launch Celebration for a chance to receive books and other Tang Dynasty themed goodies. I’m also on Twitter as @JeannieLin.
And… okay I couldn’t resist. A Picture of Tang Dynasty courtesans! Kinda! (Well likely, anyway you don’t need or want a “history” lesson from me.)